Crime Fiction – Donna Leon again

A third try.

Crime Fiction – Donna Leon again

Last year, I wrote a note about Donna Leon that began as follows.

If you read only the hard stuff, you might get ratty.  About three years ago, I asked a friend to recommend a good crime or thriller writer.  He said that a woman called Donna Leon had a following for detective stories set in Venice, starting with a plot centred at the opera house La Fenice.  I read one and Donna and I are getting just fine.  I have just read about my tenth, which is also centred on La Fenice, and the stalking of the prima donna in Tosca being performed there.  This is a real bonus for fans of opera or Venice.

Donna Leon is or was an American academic who taught literature and music.  She has lived in Venice for 25 years, which is about the number of the novels in the series.  Like most crime novels they are written after a model. 

Commissario Guido Brunetti is a very astute detective who studied law and who occasionally reads Greek tragedy for uplift.  (How many wallopers do that?)  His wife Paola lectures in English, specializing in Henry James.  She is also the daughter of a count and countess.  She can also cook, and we get full descriptions of her offerings.  They have two children who must now be of university age. 

I have just read the first novel called Death at La Fenice.  It is about the death of a maestro who dies of cyanide poisoning during the second interval of La Traviata.  He is German and a jerk who thought he was God and who bears a strong resemblance to Herbert von Karajan.  According to her website, Leon wrote this novel as a joke, but went on with it when she won a prize.  There are now 25 Brunetti novels.  Most of the recurring characters are here from the beginning, but many fans follow this author because of the part played by Venice or opera, and because of the Mickey she takes out of the Italians – often quite firmly.  There is also the good food and wine, and the bad politics, and hardly any sex or violence.  They are very easy reads.  If you want to read to relax, Donna is the go.

Here she introduces her hero for the first time.

He was a surprisingly neat man: Tie carefully knotted, hair shorter than was the fashion; even his ears lay close to his head, as if reluctant to call attention to themselves.  His clothing marked him as Italian.  The cadence of his speech announced that he was Venetian.  His eyes were all policeman.

In the course of his investigation he interviews a theatre director called Santore.

Santore was a man of average height and build, but he had the face of a boxer at the end of an unlucky career.  His nose was squashed, its skin large-pored.  His mouth was broad, his lips thick and moist.  He asked Brunetti if he would like a drink, and from that mouth came words spoken in the purest of Florentine accents, pronounced with the clarity and grace of an actor.  Brunetti thought Dante must have sounded like this.

Here we are introduced to the boss of the hero, a politically well-connected idiot called Cavaliere Giuseppe Patta.  (You utter the word ‘political’ with great care in Venice.)

Cavaliere Giuseppe Patta had been sent to Venice three years before in an attempt to introduce new blood into the criminal justice system.  In this case, the blood had been Sicilian and had proved to be incompatible with that of Venice.  Patta used an onyx cigarette holder and had been known, upon occasion, to carry a silver-headed walking stick.  Though the first had made Brunetti stare and the second laugh, he tried to reserve judgement until he had worked long enough with the man to decide if he had a right to these affectations.  It had taken Brunetti less than a month to decide that though the affectations did suit the man, he had little right to them.  The vice-questore’s work schedule included a long coffee each summer morning on the terrace of the Gritti, and, in the winter, at Florian’s.  Lunch was usually taken at the Cipriani pool or Harry’s Bar, and he usually decided at about four to ‘call it a day’.  Few others would so name it.

Toward the end of this first novel, we get a suggestion of the only fault of the wife, Paola.  She cheats compulsively at Monopoly when playing with the family.

By general consent, Paola was forbidden to be banker, as she had been caught too many times, over the course of the years, with her hand in the till……Brunetti noticed Paola calmly sliding a small pile of ten-thousand-lire notes from the banker’s pile to her own.  She glanced up, noticed that her husband had seen her stealing from her own children, and gave him a dazzling smile.  A policeman, married to a thief, with a computer monster and an anarchist for children.

Brunetti, who reads Aeschylus for relaxation, has a guarded relationship with his father-in-law, the Count.

Brunetti, for his part, earns slightly more than three million lire a month as a commissario, a sum he calculated to be only a bit more than what his father-in-law paid each month for the right to dock his boat in front of the palazzo.  A decade ago, the Count had attempted to persuade Brunetti to leave the police and join him in a career in banking.  He continually pointed out that Brunetti ought not to spend his life in the company of tax invaders, wife-beaters, pimps, thieves, and perverts.  The offers had come to a sudden halt one Christmas when, goaded beyond patients, Brunetti had pointed out that although he and the Count seem to work among the same people, he at least had the consolation of being able to arrest them, whereas the Count was constrained to invite them to dinner.

It is hard to imagine a better kind of read for a long-haul flight.  The Famous Five for would-be Venetians.

Crime Fiction

If you read only the hard stuff, you might get ratty.  About three years ago, I asked a friend to recommend a good crime or thriller writer.  He said that a woman called Donna Leon had a following for detective stories set in Venice, starting with a plot centred at the opera house La Fenice.  I read one and Donna and I are getting just fine.  I have just read about my tenth, which is also centred on La Fenice, and the stalking of the prima donna in Tosca being performed there.  This is a real bonus for fans of opera or Venice.

Donna Leon is or was an American academic who taught literature and music.  She has lived in Venice for 25 years, which is about the number of the novels in the series.  Like most crime novels they are written after a model.

Commissario Guido Brunetti is a very astute detective who studied law and who occasionally reads Greek tragedy for uplift.  (How many wallopers do that?)  His wife Paola lectures in English, specializing in Henry James.  She is also the daughter of a count and countess.  She can also cook, and we get full descriptions of her offerings.  They have two children who must now be of university age.

There is a support cast that reminds me of Perry Mason.  The bad guys are Brunetti’s superiors, who are from out of town, thick, and right wing.  The good guys include plain honest cops who have no guile or political ambition, and Signorina Elettra who is a whiz on computers and bending the law.  Anything to do with government, bureaucracy, the south, or the church is open season.  Indeed, for me the crime plot is just an excuse to hang up the clothes on which to examine Italian customs, foibles, and culinary and artistic traditions.  They are I would guess the main reasons that Leon has such a following.  She is translated into many languages, except Italian, and the Germans have made TV series about her stories.

Leon is an acute observer of her adopted country – or, I should say, city, since we are often told that Venice is different – and spoiled by tourists and cruise ships.  Many of her books look at current issues, such as child abuse, child slavery, or stalking.  But it is the descriptions of city life and eating and drinking, and the social customs that get me in.

Brunetti dined with his wife at her parents – ‘he was surprised by how casually his parents-in-law were dressed until he realised this meant that the Conte’s tie was wool and not silk, while the Contessa was wearing black silk slacks and not a dress.’  They discuss the grand-son’s love life.  The grand-daughter is not showing much interest.  ‘It won’t last much longer’, Paola said, voicing the eternal pessimism of the mothers of young girls.  ‘Some day she’ll show up at breakfast in a tight sweater and twice as much make-up as Sophia Loren.’  It is not just mums who know that.  The corruption is worse down south.  Some of the barbs are laugh out loud.  After some spectacular act of deviance, Signorina Elettra, who may have raised the pulse rate of a younger or single man, swaps stories with the dottore.  She knew of a guy who was a stage hand at the opera in Naples.  He never actually worked there.  He just clocked on and off five days a week and drove his cab seven days a week.  He had to.  He had many mouths to feed.  How long did this go on?  A mere quarter of a century.

These books are seriously entertaining and you get a slice of life of the people who gave us Verdi and Ferrari, two of mankind’s essential blessings.  The 2015 model, Falling in Love, is up to form.